“I don’t pole-dance for nothing.” That’s what one of Piranha 3D’s many frequently topless beauties says before climbing onto a rope that hovers four feet above the surface of water teeming with frenzied, toothy prehistoric fishes. It also expresses the irreverent tone for one of the most gleefully gory horror movies of all time. Director Alexandre Aja’s update of Joe Dante’s famous 1978 film (written by John Sayles) packs in exposed boobies and dismembered bodies like maraschino cherries filling a 50-gallon aquarium.
The plot mirrors Jaws with an opening-scene watery death that presages torment for a spring break hot spot. Lake Victoria, Ariz. (filmed at Lake Havasu) is the partying ground for a slew of horny college students whose busty females can’t get enough of sharing their boobs with every male in sight. Jerry O’Connell is Derrick Jones, a Girls Gone Wild-inspired pornographer who entices Jake Forester (Steven McQueen), the son of the local sheriff (Elisabeth Shue), to work as a location scout for the day’s filming of nude-beauty shenanigans aboard his boat.
Piranha 3D’s centerpiece is a shallow-water attack by thousands of hungry piranhas against hundreds of unsuspecting revelers. Aja (High Tension) ramps up the tension and gore to a fever pitch before sprinkling in a hearty dose of gross-out humor involving a severed penis. Piranha 3D is a tongue-in-cheek gore fest that’s not for the faint-of-heart or for the easily-offended.
As with Ti West’s 2008 retro-horror-homage The House of the Devil, Piranha 3D is a meticulous throwback to a kind of horror movie that never actually existed. Aja pushes the envelope of gore and nudity. The sapphic attraction of the movie is an underwater pas de deux between two nude beauties, as witnessed through a transparent viewing box in the hull of Derrick’s high-tech boat. There’s an unexpected poetry in the sequence that goes on for much longer than anyone could comfortably hold their breath.
Aja knows how to take artistic license. He explodes the film’s campy tone of sexual liberation during the beach attack sequence where the party revelers pay dearly for their lusty transgressions. A sense of authentic panic sets in as bathers try desperately to escape not only from swarms of flesh-hungry piranhas, but also from one another. A frantic kid attempts to flee in a motorboat whose propeller rips through the flesh of wounded and escaping swimmers until a girl’s hair momentarily brings the motor to a halt. A few seconds later her scalp, and most of her face, are pulled away like a peeled grape. The feeling of pure terror matches the shallow-water shark attack in Jaws, before going much, much further.
The most glaring problem with Piranha 3D is its less-than-remarkable 3-D effects. If you’re going to use “3D” in the title, audiences have every right to expect that those grotesque little fishes are going to be swimming around with them in the theater, six inches from their noses. This has been the year of 3-D movies. But it’s misleading because none of the computer-generated 3-D films released this year exhibit any of the effect’s famous quality of images pouring out from the screen. The deep-focus virtual depth you see in films such as Toy Story 3 and Piranha 3D doesn’t come close to what you experience in an IMAX 3-D film such as Hubble 3D, where you really feel like you’re sitting inside the movie.
Production companies seem to be counting on audiences having selective memory about what 3-D means. It certainly costs more to see a 3-D movie, but the experience doesn’t justify the additional money spent. On principle, 3-D movies should not cost any more to see than your typical big-budget Hollywood film. Yet, the only way the studios will learn this lesson is if audiences refuse to plunk down the additional 50 percent for a ticket to a 3-D movie. Piranha 3D is a fun horror movie, but it isn’t worth paying anything extra to see.
Piranha 3D (R) ★★★☆☆